Friday 8 April 2016

Metallica Stopped Being Metallica After Master Of Puppets

or, at least, became a different form of Metallica.

Formed in late 1981 after James Hetfield responded to an advert placed by Danish born, Tennis playing, drummer Lars Ulrich seeking a guitarist and singer to jam with - influences: Tygers Of Pan Tang, Diamond Head and Iron Maiden".
Guitarist Dave Mustaine was recruited via a second advert, and the bands first recorded output, "Hit The Lights", was included on a Metal Blade Records compilation ' The New Heavy Metal Revue presents Metal Massacre' soon after.
Bassist  Ron McGovney (previously with James Hetfield in local garage band Leather Charm) joined and the band starting performing properly live.  McGoveney's tenure was short (although it did include one show opening for Saxon), and by the end of 1982 he was replaced by Cliff Burton.
After recording a series of demos and more live performance, the band sought to record a full album.  Metal Blade Records was unable to meet the costs of this.  However, the demos had come to the attention of US East Cost promoter Jon Zazula who, unable to find a New York based record label willing to take on the band, manufactured a deal with his own Megaforce Records.

In early 1983, just before the band travelled to New York to record thier debut album, Dave Mustaine was sacked from the band and (intriguingly?) replaced by Exodus guitarist Kirk Hammett on the same day.

The debut album (originally title 'Metal Up Your Ass', and featuring 4 of the 10 tracks co-written by Dave Mustaine) was released n mid 1983, and is often cited as one of the first albums of the Trash Metal era (although the term 'Thrash' had not yet been coined, Metallica preferred to refer to themselves as Power Metal)
The content is a high energy mix of heavy riffage, pummeling drums and barked vocals.  Yet underneath it all are tunes of the highest order.  It even includes that rarest of things - a bass solo that does not make you want to disappear to the toilet or find the bar.
This is an amazingly accomplished album considering it was a debut offering from a young band with little studio experience, no "name" producer and a relatively low budget.
Critically lauded, if not selling in huge numbers, the bands confidence was high enough, that after a couple of months touring, they commenced developing previous song ideas, composing new and performing live the songs that would make up their second album.

Second album 'Ride The Lightning' was recorded in 9 weeks in Denmark.  Again, budgets were low and Megaforce had to call in Music For Nations (the band's European label) to foot the studio bills.
Now, 12 months after the debut release you would expect more of the same.
The prime difference here is the breadth of sound and subject matter - whilst the "root" of the sound is similar to 'Kill Em All', 'Ride The Lightning' is a much more adventurous sounding record.  Step forward bassist Cliff Burton, who had a theoretical music training and contributed greatly to the writing, arrangement and overall sound of these songs.  There is more "atmosphere" than the previous offering, evidenced by the use of acoustic guitars, different time signatures and more restrained performance.
It's not all "heads down, trash it all", indeed on first listen you would be surprised this is the same band as 12 months ago.  The sheer growth of the song structure and the performance is, at times, astonishing.

Thrash Metal was now a recognised term (having been first used in late 1984 in Kerrang whilst discussing Anthrax, it came to represent a whole new genre of guitar crunching, riff based LOUDNESS) - Metallica were now classed as one of the Big 4 (along with Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer).  And with the world before them for the taking, doubts were being felt about their record label, Megaforce, and management representation.

'Ride The Lightning' had come to the attention of label bosses at Elektra, and the band were duly sought out and due to their current situation, immediately signed up.  The departure from Megaforce ended their management relationship with Jon Zazula, and they signed up with the all powerful Q-Prime.
This moved the band on to bigger tours (albeit still mostly supporting larger acts) and larger arenas, including an appearance at the Monster Of Rock Festival at Castle Donnington in 1985.

Work had begun on their next album, the first for Elektra (although they remained on Music For Nations in Europe).  This album, 'Master Of Puppets' took their established template, refined and polished it and came up with something phenomenal.
After initial recordings in a US Studio, the band re-located to the Denmark studios where 'Ride The Lightning' was recorded.  The commitment to making the best album they possibly could was borne out with Lars Ulrich taking a series of theoretical drum lessons, and Kirk Hammett working with Joe Satriani to refine and improve his recording performances and techniques.
When they arrived at the studio to commence recordings, only two songs remained unfinished and all the material was completed and arranged which should have led to a slick, tight schedule for recording.  However, the band obviously realised they were making something special, and convinced they could always push further strived for a state of virtual perfectionism, resulting in the recording taking at least 6 weeks longer than originally planned.
Opening with the acoustic introduction (which seemed to be de rigueur for a Thrash album at the time), "Battery" comes flying off the vinyl and into the speakers.  One is immediately struck by the clarity of the sound, the depth and the sheer thickness (heaviness?) of the arrangement.  And it doesn't let up through nearly an hour of ear battering.  This is possibly the best sounding album of the metal genre (especially if you have the re-mastered Direct Metal Mastered (DMM) version.
The album also pushes the parameters of the bands sound, from heads down thrash, straight-ahead Metal, Hard Rock (very Heavy Rock?) and even some Prog Rock-esque touches.
It was quickly declared, and probably remains, as their absolute masterpiece.

Question is: how are they going to follow that?

The Damage Inc. Tour in support of the album commenced in late March 1986, arriving in Europe in September.
James Hetfield had broken his wrist in July, and his guitar was supplied by his roadie until late September, when it was fixed enough to resume plank-bashing duties.  However, a worse accident was to befall the band a couple of days later.
Travelling between gigs in Sweden and Denmark, the bands Tour Bus skidded and rolled over several times.  Ulrich, Hetfield and Hammett were un-injured, but Cliff Burton was thrown through a window and the bus rolled on to him.
Following Burton's death, the tour was suspended whilst the band considered their future.
With the blessing of Burton's family, Jason Newstead (from Flotsam & Jetsam) was installed as Bass player and after a couple of warm-up shows the Damage Inc Tour re-commenced with shows in Japan in November 1986.

The band returned to their rehearsal studio home in San Francisco when the Tour finished in February 1987 and started to plan their next move.

Their European distribution moved from Music For Nations to Phonogram for the princely sum of $1 million (cheap at half the price, considering the likely income from future sales).
August 1987 saw the first output from the new line-up.  The $5.98 E.P.: Garage Days Re-Revisited was an EP of covers by NWOBHM and Punk bands that had first inspired Lars Ulrich (and by association, the band).
Although recorded in an expensive studio (with a big desk, lots of buttons and stuff), the sound of the EP is as raw and urgent as any first-time first EP recorded in a Garage should be.
On a  personal note, I am forever indebted to this EP as it introduced me to The Misfits (is this a good thing, or a bad thing?).
The intent of the EP was three-fold.  Firstly, to get back in the studio following the loss of Cliff Burton.  Second, to introduce Jason Newstead (re-named Jason Newkid on the EP sleeve) to the bands working methods, and lastly to limber up in preparation for recording the follow-up to Master Of Puppets.

The recording of the next album was originally planned for Summer 1987, but a min-tour in support of The Monsters Of Rock (including a second appearance at Castle Donnington) revised the schedule.

Entering the studio in January 1988, work began on new tracks with Guns & Roses producer Mike Clink.  Little progress was made, and 6 weeks later Clink was removed, and  Flemming Rasmussen (producer of 'Ride The Lightning' and 'Master Of Puppets') re-hired.
The first couple of weeks was spent salvaging and refining the previous recordings to achieve the sound and feel the band had initially wanted.
'... And Justice For All' took the Proggy intent of parts of 'Master Of Puppets', slowed down the tempo in many places, extended the song lengths (only one song was under 6 minutes) and applied a lot of experimentation and effects to achieve the required sound.
The album took 2 months longer than their previous offering to record, and at times it feels like those extra 2 months were used to throw more and more twiddly passages, overdubs and mixing efforts out the final package.
Arriving on the shelves in August 1988, the album became Metallica's quickest and best selling album in a very short time.
Initial response was that Metallica had produced another masterpiece, and was plastered with 5 Star reviews.
Now, not wishing to decry the enormity or greatness of this album, it was seriously let down by the final sound mix sounding muddy and almost like every recorded track fighting with each other for ear-space.  That is not to say there aren't some great songs here, there are ("One" and "Dyers Eve" being amongst their very best, and there isn't really anything you cane define as "filler" or "tossed off to fill the album").
I wasn't expecting 'Master Of Puppets Part II' and a band cannot do full-on heads down Thrash forever, but I personally feel it was a mis-step - it was an ambitious undertaking (possibly too ambitious, and too much of a change of approach too quickly), but just because you can use every effect the studio has to offer, and you can mix and re-mix to your hearts content, it doesn't mean you have to.
Metallica were on the list of "Biggest Bands In The World (right now)" and they knew this, so you get the feeling they spent more time than was actually necessary fiddling an fettling the songs, arrangements and mixes before they released it to the baying public.
The time and care spent on producing the album (whether I liked it or not, and ignoring the confused, flat sound of the record), it is this album that no doubt the band had always wanted to produce and the seeds of it can be seen/heard in the tracks on previous albums.  One can't help but wonder what the follow-up to 'Master Of Puppets' would've been had Cliff Burton still been around.  And this is not a case of "laying the blame because I don't like the album much", but did Jason Newstead change the dynamic and workings of the band?

It was to be 3 years before the follow-up came out.  In true Metallica perfectionism-style this ont took 8 months to record, and pared back a lot of the excesses of previous offerings (and I have to cite '... And Justice For All' as the obvious example here).
The intent and tone of the complex song structures and arrangements remained, but it was distilled into shorter, more accessible songs, and although the band's relationship with producer didn't excatly thrive, the production values here in far in excess of the band's earlier albums.
My only reservation with the album was it did feel like they were "chasing the MTV dollar" (and good luck to them, why shouldn't they?).
This album was to become their most successful, and in my ears marked a new Metallica and catered for a new market.

I've continued to buy Metallica albums - 'Load' and 'Re-Load' were very good, but not the Metallica I (personally) wanted or expected.  Maybe it is just an age thing and the albums "aren't for me anymore"

'Garage Inc', a covers album, was released in 1998 and featured a host of newly recorded covers, and collected earlier cover versions from B-Sides and the $5.98 EP.  It also includes a cover of Anti-Nowhere Leagues "So What" - always amusing to hear James Hetfield sing of visiting UK coastal towns.  I would cite this as my favourite of the Metallica V2.0 output
I also bought 2003's 'St Anger', more out of loyalty than desire.  Again, in my ears it was OK, but still missing something, and 2008s Death Magnetic has made probably no more than 3 visits to the CD player.

Four Horsemen

Fade To Black